Quirky and Questioning
You think I’m just a doll. A doll that’s pink and light. A doll you can arrange any way you like. You’re wrong. Very wrong. What you think of me is only a ghost of time. I am dangerous. And I will show you just how dark I can be.” – Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn remains one of DC Comics most popular and top grossing characters. First appearing in 1992, she has now spent over 20 years as a cultural icon and super-villain in the imaginations of fans.
While rewatching recent productions featuring Harley Quinn, I found very few references to her as ‘woman’. Harley is referred to as a ‘girl’ and even at times ‘a little girl’. Her own self-dialogue is written such that she too refers to herself as a child. Although portrayed as being a sexually mature character, both aware of and in control of her own sexuality, she is stripped of the power of being a ‘woman’. A girl is not grown up, Harley is. Additionally, Harley’s mental health is used to discredit her intellect. Dismissed as ‘crazy’, her mental illness is weaponized against her diminishing the value of her cerebral capacities. Although we see her time and time again successfully organize mayhem or fill a conversation with wit and candor any faults are blamed on her mental health. As a character, it seems Harley’s mental health is used to further objectify her.
The Portrayal of Women in Media
In Western culture the lines between child and adult female are blurred by media portrayals of women. Commercial imagery objectifies the adolescent figures of females with sexually immature bodies, most often with narrow hips, tight waists and smaller, lifted breasts. Women, those especially present in media, are pressured to maintain adolescent figures through caloric restriction, excessive exercise and surgical operations. The psychological damage that this causes to media figures and their fans is well documented. Despite being catastrophically damaging, the objectification of the petite, non-threatening female persists.
In language, the word girl is often used as a substitute for woman. When researching standard definitions from published sources I found ‘girl’ most often defined as ‘a female child, a daughter, or a woman’. ‘Boy’, however, is most often defined as ‘a male, a son, or a man, especially young or under 18’. Although, definitions of both girl and boy can refer to their adult counterparts, it is notable that even in published sources the language here blurs female maturity. In a world where women have yet to achieve equal pay, ‘girl’ is patronizing. Most recently the U.S. Women’s soccer team’s suit for equal pay was dismissed, and yet it is easy to imagine someone saying ‘hey look at that girl’ as they refer to a world class athlete making a championship winning play.
Media Portrayal of Mental Health
"Media is very celebratory of mental illness when they are getting something out of it. But then if it takes something from them, then it becomes weaponized...Our culture has an obsession and a distaste of the ‘crazy woman’ but we also weaponize that word against her." -Halsey
I found this interview to be quite poignant on the portrayal of mental health in the media and very relevant to the character of Harley Quinn. When it comes to media portrayal of human beings struggling with mental health, the past few decades have been cruel to both women and men.